The Ska Vengers put on India’s best stage show. To look at, they’re part-cabaret, part-mod and part-2-tone, an extravagant blast that’s as much melody and groove as it is pure clever theatre. Nominally they’re a ska band, but their reach far exceeds such genre pigeonholing: they draw from a larger, more urban, more colourful gene pool. In spirit, they are a product of modern, self-aware pop, though they’re not above kicking up a plain and simple racket for the benefit of pub drunks; they do, among other things, recooked R&B and soul standards to rattling, hyperactive drums and bass, with two full-time singers, a thrust-and-duck brass section, and an all-purpose melody-and-harmonies department consisting of a guitar-player and a keyboardist who wear hats, handle the backing vocals, and fiddle with bits of percussion.
They’re also, in the scheme of things, quite well-known, which means they get to play festivals, have the glossies occasionally running a feature, and it’s not just their drinking buddies who follow their page on Facebook.
Their first record – due out soon – is, thus, a case of an established live act taking to the studios. The interesting thing, of course, is to see how much of that exciting, extroverted stage routine survives the constraints of the LP.
The first track more or less gives it away. Half a minute of scratchy Peggy Lee sample – cheekily over publishing rights permitted length – interrupted by rat-a-tat snare, and we’re off into epileptic ska-land. And that’s the record: eleven songs and forty five minutes of chic originals and jerked-up covers turned on their heads, sped up, rewritten, and rapped over to the point of being originals themselves. The pedigree is unimpeachable; what’s more, as we all know, the last time a group did an Arthur Alexander tune on their début, it worked out quite well for everybody in the end.
The problem here is, there are no surprises: none of this adds anything to what they’re already known to do. What’s worse, played through tinny speakers in the living room, whilst sober and without that pair of legs to goggle at, the record also painfully shows up the ‘Vengers’ biggest weaknesses: that, in spite of the material being thoroughly entertaining, they simply don’t do “soulful”, and, heaven knows, some of these songs have been known to have been done with soul before. More: the skill and taste are as evident as you’d expect – that rhythm section is among the very finest – but the tidy for-the-tapes playing and the big-budget production bleed it of the crisp, unstoppable crackling-and-popping that makes their show so memorable. Bringing in some of the more wigged-out sides of sister concern the Jass B’stards might’ve compensated for some of these losses, but the two seem to maintain their distance on record: as it turns out, what we have here is a clean-cut piece of the Ska Vengers that you’d take home to meet mum, a pretty great party record nevertheless, but it’s a far better party when you actually go watch them and don’t have to worry about things like emotions and capturing all that energy and style on tape.
In an age in which it’s easier for a small group to make an album than to score a gig, the Ska Vengers remain stubbornly traditional: they are, fundamentally, a performance act. They subscribe to none of the current indie band snobberies about writing inward-looking songs, keeping covers off albums or turning out as if they’ve just wandered over from maths class: their carnation-in-buttonhole look stands out in a shabby, denim-clad world. They have a knowing, winking bag of tricks for keeping their crowds entertained; the record simply documents this. Their troubles will only begin if they inadvertently hem themselves in, if the schtick runs dry and they can’t break out, if they find themselves one day having turned into a Pipettes-like novelty act. For now, they’re best. Go, watch.